Monday, January 18, 2010

Saturday fun day!

Get comfortable folks, this is going to be a long post.

Saturday began very, very early. We were up by 5:30 so we could catch a 6 p.m. shuttle into town. It came promptly, but in the darkness before sunrise the winds were strong and we were pretty frozen.

Eric, our tour guide for the day, had told us to "meet him at the airport." Having come into San Pedro via the water taxi, we'd never actually been to the airport, but on an island that small we figured "just head to where you see planes." We were supposed to meet him there at 6:30 so we would have half an hour to eat breakfast before our flight.

We got to the airport on time. No Eric. We waited for about 15 minutes. No Eric. Getting nervous, we decided we should eat breakfast on our own just in case he was running late. Grossest donuts I've ever had. Couldn't even finish one.

At 6:55 I'm getting pretty nervous... we've already paid this guy a lot of money and he's not there and our flight is supposed to leave in 5 minutes. I was saying to pretty hard prayers and feeling pretty sick to my stomach.

Fortunately, I was wearing the same sweater that I'd been wearing the day we booked the tour and Eric's business card was still in my pocket and the lady at the front desk let us use her phone to call him. No answer.

We're pretty worried by this time, so Hans tries calling again. Finally!

It turns out that the airport we were in was for Tropic Air and Eric had booked our flight through Maya Island Air. Maya Island Air doesn't really have an airport. It has a little shack. In fact, here's baggage claim:

Crazy, right?

It was basically on the other side of the tarmac and we never would have known it was an "airport" unless Eric told us. We ran over there and found Eric's two assistants waiting for us with... Johnny Cakes!

Let me pause here and say, Johnny Cakes are amazing. It's a pretty traditional island breakfast and I'm not even really sure what's in it. It's a biscuit, almost like an English Muffin. It's stuffed with spiced shredded chicken and cheese and it's glorious. I think I downed two with hardly a swallow.

The plane ride over took all of 15 minutes. It was a little 12-seater plane. Kinda cool! We got to meet the other people on our tour, who we would be spending our day with. There were April and Kerstin, Canadian cousins who came down for the weekend to snorkel. We were also joined by the Marks, a father and son duo (Mark Sr. and Mark Jr.) who couldn't stop making jokes about everything.

After our 15 minute plane drive, we were in Belize City where we met Eric. He had a Toyota Sienna waiting for us to drive to the Guatemalan border, about two hours away. I squeezed in the back seat with Hans and Mark the Younger and promptly passed out (as did Mark, who woke me snoring a couple times).

We both were woken up several times due to Eric's crazy driving. He drives very fast and brakes even faster. And it's hard to drive fast on Belizean freeways due to the giant speedbumps. That's right, there are ginormous speed bumps on the high ways. April asked about it later and Eric told us its because of the drug trade. Drug traffickers were landing their planes right on the freaking highways, so the government put in speed bumps to curb (pun intended) that.

Eric was also forced to brake several times to yield to horse and carriage buggies. Why, you might ask? Well, because Belize has a very large Amish population, of course.

... really?

Yes. Really.

The settlement was started 52 years ago, near San Ignacio. They make and sell furniture (of course). And they travel around town in their carriages, wearing full clothing in the (normally) sweltering heat. It seemed out of place to fly past them in Eric's Seinna, but kinda cool.

Our first stop was the ancient Mayanruin, Xunantunich, located right near the border with Guatemala. We had to cross a river to get there on this weird ferry thing. It was really just a platform that was attached to a cable. The cable was tied to posts/trees on either side of the river. The "ferry" conductor basically pulled the cable us along the cable to go from one side to the other. While we crossed the river we could look up in the trees and see giant iguanas lazing around on the branches. Crazy.

The ruins were amazing. Most of them are still mostly underground, but parts had been excavated. We were able to climb up to the top of the temple and get a great view of Belize on one side and Guatemala on the other. The stairways were very steep, with no handrails, and it was raining so they were slick too. It was pretty scary and we took our time.

At the top, I stayed very close to the columns in the middle (they used to support another level which no longer exists). I could hear the younger Mark saying "Oh Gosh, oh gosh" over and over followed repeatedly with "I'm not usually scared of heights, I don't know what's wrong with me..." We were also surprised to find, at the top of the temple, two young boys dressed in camo carrying very large (and scary looking) assault rifles. Our tour guide tells us that there are still frequently border skirmishes with Guatemala so the army patrols rigorously. The boys were very nice, friendly, but so young. But how cool would that for a job? You sit around all day on top of a giant ancient temple.

After we finished at the ruins, Eric took us to a local restaurant for lunch. It was so good! The traditional meal in Belize is rice, beans, and stew chicken. I think they cook the rice and beans in coconut milk and who knows what else, but it was tasty.

Then we piled back in the car for another hour drive to Jaguar Paw. Our first stop was zipling. Our two guides (can't remember their names, but they were cool!) got us all hooked up with gear. Not the most comfortable, but definitely felt secure. But man, those helmets sure smelled awful. Like a million people's sweat combined with mildew. Lovely. We all had a good laugh watching April try and get strapped into her gear - the poor dear didn't plan very well and was wearing a skirt. Whoops...

As many of you know, I am afraid of heights. I do ok on roller coasters and such because you're moving fast enough that you don't really have time register the height. I figured zip lining would be about the same. This was mostly true, but I still freaked out a little bit just from standing on the platforms. One of them, the highest, was swaying back and forth because of the storm (I mentioned it was super rainy and windy, right?) and the platform was slick from the rain. On top of that, they wanted me to climb up on a two step stool, placed right on the edge and soaking wet. That one bothered me quit a bit.

But the ziplining itself was awesome. Because of the rain, we went even faster. It was so cool watching the jungle wizzing by underneath and to just feel that fluttery sensation in your stomach from whipping through air so fast. Way cool.

The scariest part was actually at the end. You have to rappel down from the last platform. I had a really hard time with this. Once I was actually off the platform and hanging in the air, I was fine. But the actual act of just walking off the platform freaked me out. "You want me to do WHAT?"

Altogether, I think this was both Hans and my favorite part of the trip. If you've never ziplined before, you should definitely try it.

After zipling, it was time for cave tubing. Sure, it was raining, but the river runs through caves so we figured we'd be fine. And there was no lightening or anything. We changed into our swimsuits and then started the fairly long hike to the top of the river. By the time we got there, we were all covered in mud because the rain had churned the dirt path into a messy, slippery goo for our hike.

The water was surprisingly warm - I was expecting it to be freezing since the day was fairly cold and every other river I've tubed has been frigid. Not true - it was actually warmer in the river than the rain water was.

The cave tubing itself was... different. We had lights on our heads and a couple flashlights to pass around the group, but when we turned them off (which Eric made us do at one point) it was absolutely pitch black dark. The cave formations were pretty neat, but it was pretty scary feeling that closed in and not knowing what the heck else was in the water. After we came out of the caves and were just tubing the river, I think I relaxed a little more. The water was pretty clear and you could see and I just didn't feel all claustrophobic with the caves all around me. But Hans still got bit by a little fish! Eric was just saying that they were nipping at his shirt and I was watching them circle below me (they were really small, maybe four inches long and skinny) and then one took a nip at Hans' side! He said it felt like a little pinch but would have scared the crap out of him if Eric hadn't warned him that they nibbled.

Finally, it was time for the journey home. It was probably another hour back to Belize City to the airport. The flight home was the scariest part of the entire trip - more than the cave tubing, more than the slippery stairs of the ruins, more than the swaying ultra high platforms, more than Eric's driving. Even though it had been lightly storming all day, as the sun went down the storms got worse. Mainly, the winds became ridiculous. We were in a little six person plane and there were seven of us, so they put me up in the co-pilot's seat. Umm.... ok. I was watching the steering wheel in front of me spinning wildly the whole time. Really boosted my confidence in that flight. The poor pilot had a hard time even getting off the runway - the wind was blowing so hard he couldn't drive straight. The 15 minute ride home was absolutely silent. Hans and I found out later that we were both silently going over escape routes in our heads and trying to judge how far to the ground and how to survive a water crash landing.

When we finally landed in San Pedro, the pilot glance over at me, breathed a huge sigh of relief, shook his head and let out a long "whew." Again, not inspiring confidence in Maya Air. At least we got there safely...

It was 6 p.m. when we got back and we knew that the last shuttle home was at 6:30. The Mata Chica boat picks up and drops off in front of a very American-ized looking bar/restaurant called Fido's. We decided to try eating there that way we could keep an eye on the dock for the boat. It was actually pretty good! We just shared some appetizers - coconut shrimp, lobster Rangoon, and chicken satays. And we were able to make it back on the 6:30 boat! Awesome.

We decided to finish off the day with dessert at Rojo Lounge. I'd been really craving a good, chocolate-y dessert and we'd tried Mambo and Portofino so far, but they left something to be desired. Rojo did not disappoint. It was a molten-y, chocolate-y, amazing goodness that left me salivating for more. It put me in the happiest mood and Hans just shook his head laughing. It never ceases to amaze him that we can have a totally amazing day with many adventures and all it takes is a good chocolate dessert to be the highlight of my day.

Dessert is the last thing I remember that day. I'm pretty sure we all but passed out when we got home. A very long, full day, but truly one full of amazing adventures.

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